New Podcast, Featuring Taryn Vian

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. This episode is particularly timely, as it features an interview with Taryn Vian, a professor at the University of San Francisco whose research focuses on the links between corruption and public health. Unsurprisingly, much of our discussion revolves around the current coronavirus pandemic, and how to address and manage the corruption challenges associated with the current health emergency. But our broad-ranging conversation also covers the corruption-health connection in more normal times (including issues like informal payments to doctors and embezzlement or misappropriation of medical supplies), as well as lessons learned from corruption in previous public health emergencies, such as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2013-2016.

You can find this episode here. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

More Commentaries on Corruption and the Coronavirus Pandemic

Perhaps unsurprisingly, folks in the anticorruption community have started to generate a fair amount of commentary on the links between the coronavirus pandemic and corruption/anticorruption; these pieces approach the connection from various angles, including how corruption might have contributed to the outbreak and deficiencies in the response, the importance of ensuring adequate anticorruption safeguards in the various emergency measures being implemented to address both the public health crisis and the associated economic crisis, and concerns about the longer term impact on institutional integrity and checks and balances. Last week I posted links to four such commentaries. Since then, we’ve had two commentaries on the corruption-coronavirus relationship here on GAB (yesterday’s post from Sarah Steingrüber, and last week’s post from Shruti Shah and Alex Amico). Since then, I’ve come across some more, and I thought it would be useful to provide those additional links, and perhaps to try to start collecting in one place a list of commentaries on corruption and coronavirus. The new sources I’ve come across are as follows:

In case it’s helpful to readers, I may start to compile and regularly update a list of corruption-coronavirus resources. The ones I’ve got so far (including those noted above):

I’m sure there are more useful commentaries, and many more to come over the coming weeks. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to keep a comprehensive list, but I’ll do my best to provide links to the resources I’m aware of, so if you know of useful pieces on the corruption-coronavirus link, please send me a note.

Thanks everyone, and stay safe.

Guest Announcement: Special Issue on Fighting Corruption in the Health Sector

Continuing this week’s theme of highlighting resources on the links between corruption/anticorruption and the coronavirus pandemic, in today’s guest post Sarah Steingrüber, an independent global health expert and Global Health Lead for CurbingCorruption, announces the following new resource on fighting corruption in the health sector:

Last week, the open-source academic journal Global Health Action, published a special issue on anticorruption, transparency, and accountability in the health sector. Although not about the COVID-19 situation specifically, this special issue—a joint undertaking with the World Health Organization—addresses crucial and highly relevant issues related to the health sector’s ability to prevent, detect, and sanction corruption, in order to address the threats that corruption poses to the health system’s ability to perform effectively during both crises and normal times.

After an introductory overview by Theadora Koller, David Clarke, and Taryn Vian, the special issue includes seven articles:

Some Recent Commentaries on Corruption and the Coronavirus Pandemic

As I noted last week, although this blog is going to keep on going during the COVID-19 crisis (though perhaps with somewhat reduced output), it’s a bit challenging to proceed with blogging about one problem (corruption) when another problem (the COVID-19 pandemic) is so much at the forefront of everybody’s mind. And in that last post, I noted that although there’s a well-known connection between corruption and public health generally, “so far corruption doesn’t seem to be a major issue in the COVID-19 situation.”

I think perhaps I spoke too soon. We’re already starting to see a number of interesting and useful commentaries on the connections between corruption/anticorruption and the COVID-19 pandemic (several of which readers helpfully noted in comments on last week’s post). I do think we should always try to be a bit cautious about straining to find links between whatever it is we work on and the most salient problem of the day. (I can’t help but remember that in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, people suddenly discovered that whatever problem they’d been working on for the past decade was inextricably linked to the threat of global terrorism.) But in this case I’m persuaded that the links are particularly plausible and important that this is something that deserves further study.

At some point, I may post some original content on this topic to GAB, but for now let me just provide links to some of the interesting early commentaries on the possible connections between corruption and the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Natalie Rhodes, who works with the Transparency International Health Initiative, has an essay–subsequently expanded into a longer feature on Transparency International’s website–discusses some of the corruption risks during the response to an epidemic, including shortage-induced bribery risks, diversion of emergency response resources, and kickbacks in the procurement process.
  • Jodi Vittori, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, has a piece entitled “Corruption Vulnerabilities in the U.S. Response to Coronavirus,” which similarly emphasizes corruption risks in medical supply chains, and the greater difficulty in securing transparency and accountability during times of crisis. She lays out a series of measures that, she argues, must be integrated into all COVID-19 response legislation, and also suggests some things that ordinary citizens can do.
  • Another Carnegie Endowment fellow, Abigail Bellows, has a piece called “Coronavirus Meets Corruption: Recommendations for U.S. Leadership,” which emphasizes that the combination of systemic corruption and the COVID-19 crisis could prove especially devastating in the developing world, and suggests that the U.S. government could help ameliorate this situation by targeting more of its foreign aid at strengthening fiscal management systems, and by enacting a number of currently-pending bills that, while not specifically related to corruption in the health sector, would provide greater U.S. support to the fight against kleptocracy abroad.
  • In one of the earliest blog commentaries suggesting a corruption-coronavirus link, Gretta Fenner and Monica Guy of the Basel Institute on Governance wrote a post for the FCPA blog in late January that suggested the original coronavirus outbreak in China may have been linked to the illegal wildlife trade, and that the illegal wildlife trade is made possible by corruption–a string of connections that leads them to ask, in the title of their post, “Did corruption cause the deadly coronavirus outbreak?”

I’m sure that in the days and weeks ahead, more commentaries will appear that explore both the ways that corruption may have contributed to, or exacerbated the impact of, the coronavirus pandemic, and the corruption risks associated with the policy responses to this crisis. I probably won’t be able to keep up with all of them, but I’ll do my best to feature them on the blog when I can, and if readers are aware of other useful commentaries, please send me the information through this blog’s contact page.

Thanks everyone, and stay safe.

Blogging in a Time of (Mostly Unrelated) Crisis–A Note to Readers

Dear GAB readers,

The rapidly worsening COVID-19 situation has been disruptive and stressful for people all over the world. My home institution, Harvard University, has sent all students home and asked faculty and non-essential staff to work from home to the extent possible. And many others, including many in our reader community, have things much worse.

I’ve been thinking about the best way to proceed with this blog under the circumstances, especially since, while public health crises are often linked with corruption problems (see, for example, here, here, and here), so far corruption doesn’t seem to be a major issue in the COVID-19 situation. (There have been significant government failures in handling the COVID-19 outbreak, but those seem to be due more to incompetence, mismanagement, and lack of preparedness, rather than greed and graft.) On the one hand, it feels strange to be thinking and writing about anything other than the COVID-19 crisis right now. On the other hand, it’s not like all of the world’s other problems have gone away, and if corruption isn’t a major part of the COVID-19 story right now, I suspect that it will be in the not-too-distant future.

So, at least for now, GAB will continue to operate, though perhaps with somewhat less frequent posts. And if any experts in the public health-corruption link would like to get a discussion going on how corruption issues do relate to the COVID-19 crisis, I’m always open to guest post submissions (which you can send to me here).

Finally, and most importantly of all, I hope that all of you do whatever you can to stay safe and healthy during this difficult and dangerous time.

“Petty” Corruption Isn’t Petty

Grand corruption attracts plenty of attention—from activists, the mainstream media, and other commentators (including on this blog)—and for good reason. While the media may simply be riveted by the decadent lifestyles of corrupt actors, the anticorruption community has increasingly recognized the devastating impact that kleptocrats and their cronies can have. No doubt, this attention to grand corruption is welcome and recent successes in fighting it are laudable. At the same time, though, this increased focus on grand corruption carries with it the risk of making smaller, more everyday forms of corruption—sometimes called “petty” corruption—seem less consequential.

Yet so-called “petty” corruption remains widespread, and its aggregate impact should not be underestimated. By way of example, consider the most recent results from the Transparency International (TI) Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) survey of citizens in Latin America and the Caribbean, which found that one-third of people who used a public service paid a bribe in order to do so. In other words, for these 90 million people, their ability to access a government service to which they were entitled was conditioned upon an extralegal payment—and that’s just accounting for this one region.

Even as the anticorruption community rightly focuses attention on combatting grand corruption, we can’t forget the real havoc wreaked by smaller-scale corruption. So-called “petty” corruption is not a petty concern. Rather, it’s a serious, pervasive problem that deserves just as much sustained attention as does politicians buying collector cars and oceanfront properties with assets from their secret offshore bank accounts. At the risk of repeating familiar points, it’s worth reviewing the ways in which small-scale corruption has, cumulatively, a range of incredibly destructive effects:

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Incorporating Corruption and Accountability into Public Health Education

Corruption is a serious threat to achieving global health objectives. As Professor Taryn Vian pointed out, corruption increases the cost and decreases the availability of medicines and medical equipment, creates barriers to health services, enables the spread of fake medicines. As I argued in a previous post, corruption also undermines the trust in government that is essential to dealing with public health emergencies. The importance of training and educating public health professionals on how to identify and understand problems of corruption in health, along with how to incorporate anticorruption strategies into programs and institutions, would therefore seem quite obvious. Yet the core public health curriculum at leading graduate institutions generally does not include a serious discussion of corruption and its impacts on public health. There are exceptions–Professor Vian, for example, teaches on this topic in her courses at Boston University’s School of Public Health—but for the most part corruption appears to be absent from public health course catalogs.

It’s not clear why this is the case. It may be that there is a shortage of professors who are knowledgeable or willing to teach on the topic, or perhaps most graduate students do not see the value in enrolling in such a course, especially if they have not witnessed corruption firsthand. Whatever the reasons, the end result is that students graduate from public health programs with little knowledge about the causes and consequences of corruption in the health sector, the reasons why good governance is so important to health care systems, the best ways to prevent, detect, and report cases of corruption. This is a problem. Public health education can and should place greater emphasis on corruption (and related topics like good governance and accountability), for three main reasons: Continue reading